(Joe’s note: In honor of France, I am taking most of the month of August off from the column. I will be traveling, visiting family and attending a wedding. While I’m gone a few of my friends have volunteered to guest-write The Joe Donatelli Column. They are all very talented people and I hope you enjoy their work.)
Signs of the times
By Holly Simpson LeDonne
My commute up and down Interstate 5 in California used to take me past the Crystal Cathedral, home of the second-most bizarre display of white-people religious fervor I have ever witnessed, topped only by the Jimmy Buffettshow I attended in 1995. Against the morning sky, the cathedral gleamed majestically – or threateningly, depending on where things stood between you and the Big Guy. It towered above the palm trees, hotels and nearby Disneyland rides, pushing the fiery sunrise back against my prescription shades, as if I needed a reminder of the colors I am most likely see in my afterlife.
I have since moved back to my hometown of Cleveland. It’s a place I always thought of as being filled with moderate, friendly people. (Of course, until I moved away from Cleveland for several years, it was also a place where I thought nobody spoke with a discernible accent. Da Bearz? LeBrahn James? Lost on me.)
My new commute takes me past rolling fields and barns that are actually used for reasons other than cooking up crank – like raising alpacas, for instance. Instead of freeway signs warning of stolen babies and 24-car pileups, they tell drivers to be on the lookout for deer. And I no longer roll up the car windows and pray for a green light when a pickup truck driven by a Mexican pulls up next to me blasting Emilio Navaira; now it’s a redneck behind the wheel blasting Brad Paisley’s “I’m Still a Guy.” In those moments, I pray something large and heavy crushes my car.
Also during my drive, I pass – and I counted one day – 12 churches, two synagogues, one Jewish bomb shelter and two van-loads of bonnet-ed Amish chicks.
I thought these details quaint at first, a throwback to my years spent tearing around back roads on Saturday nights in my Grandpa’s 1987 Chevy Cavalier, bumping the Proclaimers, high school pals bouncing around without seat belts.
But what struck me after awhile was how God Inc. appears to be suffering in my town. Although the Catholic churches here still have a strong showing, boasting steep, stained-glass windows, the rest of them have sunk all of the collection plate money into something far more valuable: marketing.
(Above: Photo by Holly Simpson LeDonne. Homespun wisdom by God.)
It’s clear who some of these churches have on their side when it comes to selling themselves. Rather than fix the leaking roof or pave a few parking spaces over the tire-creased lawns, the churches overwhelmingly prefer Broadway-style signage in order to bring in the bucks. As brightly lit beacons of mercy along the road, these signs range in design prowess from wooden posts to hand-carved stone and marble facades, sometimes flanked by the image of Jesus himself.
As for the effectiveness of what’s written in them … well, as someone who’s worked for a long time in the communications field, forever struggling and straining to find the right words … fuck them! While they aren’t necessarily the kinds of messages that sweep the Clio awards every year, they’re potent enough that one Tuesday morning I nearly swung my car into the empty parking lot of Mount Moriah Christian Center because the sign outside told me to. I thought this was slick, considering that the last time I went to church, a concerned friend later asked whether I had burst into flames when I stepped inside.
(Above: The Good Lord giveth and the Good Lord maketh the yuk-yuks. Photo by Holly Simpson LeDonne.)
Given the close proximity of these religious institutions, there’s no doubt they’ve observed one another’s efforts. I’ve been pleased to find that each church uses slightly different competitive approaches – combined with a healthy dose of one-upsmanship – to attract new customers.
Some rely on cute and clever: “Sign broke. Message inside.”
Others rely on people’s innate need to feel a sense of power and superiority over others: “There’s a difference between knowing ABOUT God and KNOWING God.”
Some preach. (Hey, at least somebody’s doing his goddamn job.): “Do the math. Count your blessings. Thank the Creator.”
There was one church in particular, a Mennonite one, that had long stuck to a solid regimen of spouting idle threats, another tactic I find commendable, given the line of work: “Grass and flowers fade, but the word of God is forever.” I was disappointed when it abandoned this method and resorted to bribery: “Chicken dinner. 5:30-7:30, Friday. FREE.”
Seems real simple, right? Wrong. When you pull this one apart, it’s evil marketing genius. Now, a chicken dinner. I know at least 17 people off the top of my head who would denounce any current faith – and possibly lie about whom they’re related to – in order to get a chicken dinner. But then you see the hours. Pretty limited if you plan to hit the buffet more than twice. And then … it’s on a Friday. Hell if any people I know are setting foot in a church on Friday night before they have a chance to set foot in a liquor store. But just as you’re puffing out your chest at this indignation – these teases! – they cast your ballot for you: “FREE.”
I don’t know what Mennonites do, other than avoid cameras, but apparently they eat chicken. I think I know how a lot of people in the neighborhood are kicking off their party weekends.
Of course, there are a few churches that just aren’t able to hang with the big boys, but they do the best they can. I’m talking about the sandwich board guys. They can’t afford to install a permanent sign but noticed that the gyro stand down the street makes a killing during lunch when they put the “$1 feta fries” sandwich board out; why wouldn’t the same principal apply to Jesus?
Sandwich boards are designed to convey a punch as opposed to a message of hope (although some days, the promise of cheese is all the salvation I need). The Baptist church did the best it could though: “This Sunday, 8:25 & 10:25: Choosing Journey.” The next line said simply, “Dad.” Given the time of year, I surmised it was related to Father’s Day, but there is also the chance that the church was passing judgment in favor of a certain 1980s rock band.
(Above: Spreading the word of God via sandwich board. $1 feta fries not included. But they probably should be. Photo by Holly Simpson LeDonne.)
Catholics, of course, know better than everyone. “Fucking amateurs,” they must say to themselves with a well-earned air of satisfaction. A weathered Virgin Mary statue placed strategically next to an American flag (flown at half-mast for local soldiers killed in the war) provides all the crushing guilt local Catholics need to make it to church on Sunday.
Our Lady of Perpetual Help takes the entire round though. The original church facility, built in the late 1800s, stands like an orphaned child against a busy, modern street. It’s hard to see the prized and more recently constructed bell tower sweeping up through the pine trees, tucked well behind the pot-holed parking lot. Sandwich boards be damned. The building is its own plea. Catholics know what they’re doing.
I admit that I enjoy watching fierce competition, especially when it comes to the unwinnable (e.g., who loves the Lord more, or the Cleveland Indians’ current season), but ultimately, it’s a passing interest, kind of like watching “American Idol.” I’ll call in a vote on behalf of my favorite contestant, but I’ll never buy her albums.
So I think I’ll just take a cue from a long-ago song and make up my own little sign:
“Thank you, Lord, for thinking about me. I’m alive and doing fine.”
(Guest columnist Holly Simpson LeDonne is happy to be writing for an editor who doesn’t mind swears. Unless he took them all out. Asshole.)